Wilbury Primary sits cheek by jowl with two of the most selective schools in north London. Unlike at the nearby Latymer School or Henrietta Barnett, in the exclusive Hampstead Garden Suburb, Wilbury's 950 pupils speak 62 languages between them, and almost half are eligible for free school meals. It's no bastion of privilege.
Yet at the lunchtime meetings of the Sage Club, 14 of the school's most gifted and talented pupils are coached by four private tutors in verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning to develop their creative thinking skills. But how?
According to Edd Stockwell, one of the founders of the Tutorfair Foundation, it's the result of a move towards making private tutoring more egalitarian; not so much a buy-one-get-one-free deal as buy-one-and-someone-else-gets-one-free. Until now, Stockwell says, tutoring has had a reputation for helping the privileged buy advantage – but the private sector has come up with its own solution to this problem by "revolutionising tutoring to make it a force for good".
"We believe that tutoring should be for all, so the Tutorfair Foundation arranges free tuition for children who can't afford it," he says. "For every student who pays, we provide free tuition for a student who can't. Never again will tutoring just be the preserve of the privileged few."
These will be welcome words to Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist who set up the Sutton Trust, an education charity, to help give pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance in life. When recent research by the trust showed that one in four parents was paying for private tuition to boost the exam chances of their children, Sir Peter commented that: "Parents naturally want to do the best for their children. Providing private tuition for them puts those children whose parents can't afford it at a disadvantage. That's why it's so crucial that we find a successful way to ensure that the learning gap is narrowed for less advantaged children."
Tutorfair is not alone in trying to help families from disadvantaged backgrounds enjoy the benefits of private tuition for their children. A sister charity of the Sutton Trust, the Education Endowment Foundation, is testing the impact of offering young people from low-income backgrounds private tuition for free by funding a £263,000 evaluation of the work of the Tutor Trust in Manchester. It selects and trains able university students and recent graduates to deliver tuition in challenging schools, while other similar-minded companies put volunteer tutors into state schools or provide tutoring and Ucas support for free. Some schools are also understood to be using their pupil premium to pay for private tuition for disadvantaged children.
For Sarah Lavery of Greenwich, who bought tutoring through Tutorfair's website, a significant part of the appeal of choosing Tutorfair for her 15-year-old daughter, Alice, lay in its philanthropy. "When we signed up, there was this box you had to tick which says that 5 per cent of your fee goes towards providing private tuition for more disadvantaged pupils," Ms Lavery said. "It was certainly one of the things that persuaded me to sign up."
She has been more than happy with the service that the tutors provided for Alice, who is studying for A-levels in the sciences, having done much better than expected in her GCSE exams. "The difference was absolutely stunning," she said. "In February, there was a kind of bordering on panic about the results but she ended up with a good batch of As and A*s. We didn't want to put her into the private sector – she went to a local comprehensive. But when you're in a class of 28 to 30-plus it's difficult for each of them to get the attention they need. Now she's quite happy to have gone into the sixth-form and she's absolutely loving it. The private tuition gave her confidence."
The box-ticking by the likes of Sarah Lavery has enabled Tutorfair to form partnerships with five schools serving disadvantaged neighbourhoods in London to provide private tuition for free, with the teachers selecting the pupils most likely to benefit from it. The tutors themselves all receive a half day training course run by Teach First, the innovative and nationally praised initiative that recruits talented graduates to teach in low-income areas across England and Wales.
"We offer the pupils 10 hours of tuition over six weeks," said Stockwell. "It is usually C/D borderline candidates at GCSE, but some schools also want private tutors who can help a talented pupil to get an A or A* grade at GCSE.
"The students are absolutely delighted. In most cases, they've never had someone target them specifically in a one-on-one intervention. For a lot of the students, they've maybe not had anyone from their family who's been to university, and maybe they don't have all the resources that others do. Having a bright, professional tutor focus on them can really bring about a remarkable change in how they see their own educational attainment.
"It makes the hairs on my arms stand up just thinking about it. We have kids who come back three weeks later and run up to the tutor, saying: 'Oh, wow, what you said is absolutely right – our teacher isn't as bad as I thought, they were just struggling to explain it to me. I'm going to start trying harder in my science classes now because you said I could.' Belief in them and having faith in them really makes a difference."
The tutors, many of whom volunteer their time, are, says Stockwell, delighted to take part in the charitable projects because they are passionate about finding a way to tutor in a socially responsible way. "The class teachers love it, too. For those teachers in the schools where we have partnerships, it helps them accelerate the gifted and talented kids, or support the ones who are struggling more.
"One of the things that our tutors talk about a lot is unblocking. If the kids didn't get something in class a few days ago or weeks, say a block with algebra, the tutor can wind back to find out what the block was and focus on that so that it's no longer a problem. It's helpful for the teacher because, in a class of 25 to 30, there's no way they can do that because there are not enough resources."
Sam Green, the principal of Pimlico Academy in south London, says the school is proud to have piloted and shaped its partnership programme with Tutorfair. "Volunteering one-hour sessions in English, maths and science for students has been encouraging in a climate of austerity, and showed a real passion to increase social mobility – regardless of background," she said.
Back at Wilbury, in Edmonton, Alex Lee, the Teach First teacher behind the advent of the Sage Club, says that the four private tutors are booked in for an hour at a time "but it generally runs over because of their enthusiasm".
The final proof as to whether the endeavour has been successful will be seen later this month when the pupils sit their entrance tests. But, in the meantime, Lee says many institutions have exams for which children can be tutored.
"If it is going to be this way for the gifted children of parents from one social strata, why should it not be so for everyone else? I see this as a great levelling out."